On the Town
American TV's Uncle Walter died at a grand old age five years ago, bringing to an end the media's obsequies for Michael Jackson, who'd expired a couple of weeks earlier. But the farewells to Cronkite were an elegy for an entire industry - and to mass culture itself. This essay was first published in Maclean's:
On the face of itâand on the face of themâMichael Jackson and Walter Cronkite would not appear to have much in common. Cronkite was (all together now) "the most trusted man in America"; Jackson was the least trusted child-man in America, at least to any parents whose ambitions for their kid extend beyond a $30-million out-of-court settlement. But, for those members of the Jackstream Media hoping to eke out one more week of prostrations and ululations for their Gloved One, Cronkite's death served as a kind of intervention. For, if there's one thing the press love more than a celebrity cut down in his prime(ish), it's the opportunity for self-validation that the passing of one of its own affords. The media's sense of proportion is never more out of whack than when bidding farewell to some iconic figure from its glory days, and one had high hopes that the eulogies for Cronkite might surpass the impressive new records in risibility set by the coverage of Washington Post doyenne Kay Graham in 2001: "The Most Powerful Woman In America," "The Most Powerful Woman In The World," "America's Queen," "Kay's Amazing Grace," "Oh, Kay," "Special Kay". . .
No "Kay. Why?" oddly enough. There was an element of triumphalism in all this: Mrs. Graham was a central ïŹgure in what the J-school bores regard as American journalism's finest hourâWatergate. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! A mere eight years has passed since Kay Graham's death, but the smug complacency that characterized her eulogies was noticeably absent from Cronkite's, which mostly read like obituaries for an industry. It's sunset, and it's no longer bliss: the heir to Cronkite, Katie Couric, is the champion limbo dancer of evening-news ratings; the New York Times, the oracle from which all three network newscasts take their cue, is now junk stock. It turns out Walter Cronkite and Michael Jackson have quite a bit in common: both performers peaked circa 1980, and did very little these last two decades. In that sense, they belong culturally to the same generation. They represent the zenith of a shared, universal popular culture: Jacko's Thriller was the biggest-selling album of all time ever; Cronko's newscast was the most-watched in America. Barring dramatic and severe government control of technology, no CD and no news show will ever be that big again. And, when you think about it, millions of teenagers going out and buying the same slickly manipulative pop record is less weird than millions of grown-ups agreeing they'll all get their world view from the same source. But (all together now, again) "that's the way it was" back in the days when ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post functioned as a co-operative monopoly.
Michael Jackson, of course, embodied (literally) the cult of youth, albeit in extreme form. I can't recall whether it's an actual bona fide fact or just a stray firecracker that popped in Larry King's head and rolled off his tongue a nanosecond later, but somewhere or other in the Jacksonian obsequies someone said that the 50-year-old singer was on hormone treatment to keep his voice high. There surely is an emblem of the times. Last year, Diana West wrote a book called The Death of the Grown-up. But now even the world's oldest, squeakiest adolescents are dying, too.
Cronkite was more or less twice Jackson's age. But he wasn't, not always. Back in 1963, he was actually younger than Jacko, a mere whippersnapper in his mid-forties. But the hair's thinning, the eyebrows are bushy, the cheeks are already jowly. He looks like he'll look till the end of his life. He's handed a piece of paper, puts on his horn-rimmed glasses, removes them, and tells America the President died at 1 p.m. Central Time.
It was all real that day: no teleprompter, no earpiece; the newsroom backdrop was a real room with real staffers doing real work. Now it's theatre: the anchor reads from the prompter, but still has papers on the desk so he can do that final shuffle of the script after he says goodnight. Come to think of it, is there still a "desk"? In the nineties, BBC News introduced a "virtual studio," bigger and shinier than the real thingâa dump in West Londonâand thus, while entirely fantastical, more representative of the corporation's "authority." And yet, amidst all the computer-generated distractions and in an age that venerates youth, at the heart of the nightly dinner theatre, viewers of "evening news" still want to find an elderly avuncular male exuding gravitas or some tele-simulacrum thereof. For a few months, between Dan Rather's self-detonation and Katie Couric's appointment, the CBS Evening News was guest-hosted by the septuagenarian Bob Schieffer. Ol' Bob came not only cheaper than Katie, he got better ratings, too. Among that brave endangered species that still totters to its TV every evening to find out "the way it is" in between ads for incontinence pads, hope springs eternal that somewhere out there there's still a benign avuncular authority figure, a "defining anchor of America's story" (as Diane Sawyer called Cronkite), "the voice that held us together in dark days" (in Larry King's words).
There can never be. Today's network anchors are a niche market. And anyone under 40 is more familiar with parody anchors like Messrs. Stewart and Colbert. Cronkite was (all together yet again) "the most trusted man in America." How do we know? Because a 1973 poll found it to be so. Other pollsâsay, Obama's approval ratingâcome and go, move up and down, are subject to seasonal fluctuations. But, taken at a time when most alternative candidates with any name recognition were ensnared in Watergate, this 1973 snapshot of Cronkite's trustworthiness is apparently operative for all eternity, chiselled in granite and installed atop Mount Rushmore.
And actually he wasn't that trustworthy, not when it mattered. In 1968, after a flying visit to Vietnam in the wake of the Tet Offensive, Cronkite delivered an on-air editorial declaring that "we are mired in stalemate." In fact, if you'll forgive the expression, he was wrong in his most basic analysis:
"Who won and who lost in the great Tet Offensive against the cities? I'm not sure. The Viet Cong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw."
Er, no. The "referees of history" agree U.S. and South Vietnamese forces won. Not only did the Viet Cong not "win by a knockout," they were so shattered that they never recovered militarily, and henceforth the burden of the war fell on the North Vietnamese army. Out there on the battlefield, the U.S. won, but couldn't persuade its own citizenry of the fact. Thanks, in large part, to Cronkite.
Now you might disagree with my view. But that's the point: it's a view, it's an opinion. Cronkite could have presented his views and opinions on Tet as a commentator or pundit. But instead he did so with the full force of his avuncular "trustworthiness." His editorial that day was delivered not as an editorialist but as "this reporter," deploying an already weirdly insistent theatrical tic in service of his bias: "It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors . . ."
As John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, put it, "Cronkite, the gravelly voice of accepted American wisdom, whose comportment suggested he kept his money in bonds and would never even have considered exceeding the speed limit, devastated President Lyndon Johnson." "If I've lost Cronkite" (and all together now, one last time) "then I've lost Middle America." A savvy operator inside the Beltway, LBJ crumpled before the magic lantern of network TV. Uncle Walter divided his time, as the capsule bios say, between Manhattan and Martha's Vineyard. Which would make the middle of his America . . . Greenwich, Conn.? The Hamptons?
But he was "avuncular" and "trustworthy," and so he provided the cover, as John Podhoretz put it, for the "impartial" media to join "the adversary culture." When Cronkite died, I happened to be reading a rather dense Commonwealth constitutional scholar on the ultimate reserve powers of the Crown. They're real, and you can use themâbut only once, and at huge cost. In the seventies, Sir John Kerr, the governor general of Oz, was within his rights to fire the prime minister, Gough Whitlam, but the act inflicted a slow erosion on the reputation of the Australian monarchy from which it has never recovered. That's what Cronkite's Tet intervention did to the media's carefully constructed self-mythologyâalthough it took technological democratization to enable the masses finally to throw off the "that's the way it is" media. In 1968, Uncle Walter took down a president and helped lose a war. In 2004, his successor, Dan Rather, tried to do the same to Bush over some laughably fake National Guard memos. Instead, a website commenter and a blogger wound up taking Crazy Uncle Dan down, and out, for good. That's the way it was. But not anymoreâand good thing, too.
~from Maclean's, August 2nd 2009
from On the Town, July 12, 2014
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